Saturday, August 13, 2011


It's often said that defense wins championships. That old chestnut may well be true, but it only holds in soccer if the goalkeeper can keep down the unforced errors. It's an often overlooked factor, but a safe pair of hands between the posts is to EPL title aspirations what catfights are to the Real Housewives franchise: absolutely essential.

As the Premiership kicks off, the title contenders all have question marks in the goalkeeping department: none more so than defending champions Manchester United. It's a lot to ask a 20-year-old goalkeeper who's new to the league to fill the void left by the retirement of a Dutch master. But at Wembley in the Community Shield last Sunday, David de Gea seemed to pick up exactly where his predecessor Edwin van der Sar left off against Barcelona in the Champions League final on the same hallowed turf in May: Looking decidedly dodgy on letting in a long range salvo that shouldn't have been allowed to hit its mark.
Sir Alex Ferguson has few weaknesses as a manager, but replacing goalkeeping legends might be one of them. The good knight fielded 10 different goalkeepers (and no doubt lost many a good night's sleep) between Peter Schmeichel's retirement in 1999 and van der Sar's debut in 2005. One of those keepers, of course, was Tim Howard. The New Jersey native established himself as one of the league's best after moving from Old Trafford to Goodison Park in 2007, but it's unlikely Everton will feature in the title race this season.

On the red side of Merseyside, there is renewed hope for a title tilt. An unscientific poll I conducted among some of my ESPN colleagues (past and present) revealed overwhelming support for Pepe Reina as the EPL's best goalkeeper. And for Liverpool to have any shot at a record-tying 19th title, he'll have to be.

It would help new Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas escape the Stamford Bridge shadow of his mentor Jose Mourinho if Petr Cech got back to cutting off dangerous crosses instead of instigating the occasional penalty-area game of follow the bouncing ball. Cech has come up big many, many times for Chelsea over the years, but there is every chance he'll take his eye off the ball once or twice this season and that could prove costly.

The football follies have been a feature of the tenure of Brazilian keeper Gomes in the White Hart Lane goal, and factored in Spurs missing out on a Champions League berth. A bit like the fabled "Little Girl With A Curl," Gomes has plenty of very, very good moments, but when he's bad -- well, horrid hardly begins to describe some of his howlers. Enter another American EPL stalwart, Brad Freidel. At 40-years-old, the Buckeye stopper is double the young de Gea's age and doesn't have the razor sharp reflexes of his salad days at Blackburn (if that's not too much of an oxymoron), but he still commands the penalty area with an authority that his backline benefits from. It will be interesting to see who gets the starting nod from Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp.

Across North London, Spurs archrivals Arsenal is distracted by the Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nesri transfer sagas, but as always Arsene Wenger is putting his faith in youth. He seems set to put his last line of defense in the hands of 21-year-old Wojciech Szczesny. Gunners' fans are a bit up in arms about Wenger's continuing youth policy. They will be hoping the young Pole doesn't give them more ammunition.

Joe Hart will be making more money at Manchester City, having just signed a new contract. And in sports that can sometimes make a player relax. Hart was outstanding at the beginning of the last campaign, but displayed some chinks in the armor down the stretch. And after less than stellar performances against Switzerland in June and Manchester United in the Community Shield, Roberto Mancini will want to see normal service restored as the new season gets underway.

Goalkeepers, of course, are a different breed. Like closers in baseball, they stand alone with little margin for error. This EPL season, their mistakes will not only be magnified more than ever, they will be more critical than ever. My only predictions for the season are that my beloved Baggies will get more points than Swansea City, and that the title race will be tighter than a Joan Rivers facelift.

The title contenders will be looking over their shoulders all season: checking out the opposition, and often their own goalkeeper. They all know the team with safe hands at the back will most likely end up at the front.